Business Travel Prospers Despite Changes & Volatility

Open Jaw
by Bruce Parkinson

l-r: Chris Vukelich, Egencia;
Dorothy Dowling, Best Western;
Ian Race, Vision; Tony Pollard,
Hotel Association of Canada.

Dorothy Dowling.

Best Western Senior V.P. Sales & Marketing Dorothy Dowling calls herself a contrarian on the issue of millennials, the bigger-than-the-Boomers population bulge of people born between the early 1980s and the 1st few years of the 21st century.

How is Dowling contrarian? She doesn’t believe that millennial tastes and behaviours are that different from previous generations, despite the hype that presents the group as some strange and unfathomable creature. “When it comes to hotels, today’s travellers all want the same thing – free WiFi and free breakfast – I don’t think millennials are that much different,” Dowling says.

Dowling was speaking at an annual event where business travel experts make predictions for the year to come. This year’s group also included Hotel Association of Canada President Tony Pollard, Vision Travel Solutions Senior V.P. Sales & Account Management Ian Race and Egencia V.P. Supplier Relations Chris Vukelich.

While Dowling doesn’t believe millennials are shaking the foundations of business travel, neither she nor any of the other panelists would deny that this is a time of great change, driven by factors as disparate as technology leaps and global terrorism. There are major situational factors impacting business travel too, including low oil prices, a faltering CAD and high Canadian airfares. In short, it’s not business travel as usual. But despite the volatility, panelists were upbeat about the prospects for the year ahead.

Vision’s Race says the company is predicting 8% growth this year. Dowling says that while consultancy PKF is predicting 3% business travel growth, Best Western is forecasting 5-7% for itself and “still confident” on those numbers.

Vukelich, the only American on the panel, says Egencia too is predicting steady growth in the Canadian business travel market, partly because the clipped Loonie will send more Canadians south with cheaper products to sell.

Asked about the benefits of managed vs. unmanaged travel, Vukelich listed 3 major ones: travel policy enforcement; expense reporting and duty of care, which he singled out as increasingly important. Vision’s Race agreed, saying traveller health and safety and monitoring of terrorism and geopolitical events are big factors and best achieved in a managed environment.

TMCs like Egencia and Vision continue to build functionality into their mobile applications and to encourage online booking. Egencia says 85% of its bookings are online, driving down the cost per booking into the single digits compared to the $35-50 common for human-assisted transactions. Race says online bookings at Vision were just 5% three years ago and now top 40%. “This will grow, not shrink,” Race said. “Agents will be reserved for complex and international itineraries.”

Dowling says more than 50% of BWI’s bookings are made online, and over 50% of Best Western web traffic is accessed through mobile technology. But she says there are “still a lot of friction points on mobile,” especially around payment, so most online bookings are from desk or laptops. Secure, seamless mobile payment integration is “the next business travel Holy Grail,” Dowling said.

Vukelich says TMC apps like Egencia’s TripNavigator are increasingly robust, enabling in-policy booking of air, hotel and cars, and immediately informing travellers of changes or events that could impact their itinerary. “We know when a flight has been cancelled before the traveller does, and we’re helping them sometimes before they even know there is a problem.”

Vukelich says another big business travel change is that the “slavish devotion to negotiated rates is dwindling.” There is less and less contracting of blocked space, and more companies preferring to take “the best rate of the day.”

The brave new world of business travel is a pretty high-tech place, a point driven home by the Hotel Association of Canada’s Tony Pollard, who said that for the 1st time this year, ‘free Wi-Fi’ topped ‘friendly service’ as a most desired hotel amenity. “We’re in a different world,” Pollard said, “but the industry is performing quite well.”

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